Doing a Number on Math Education

Bill Speer, director of UNLV’s Math Learning Center, earns a national lifetime achievement award with his forward-looking approach to teaching math.

By Juliet V. Casey | Originally posted on UNLV News Center

Bill Speer, director of UNLV’s Math Learning Center

When Bill Speer talks about life, he has an artful way of using mathematics to illustrate his point.

And when explaining how 6×2 and 2×6 are two completely different circumstances but yield the same numeric answer, he has an artful way of using life to show why.

“Math isn’t about memorizing a bunch of steps,” he said. “It’s about the meaningful steps that represent something real in life. I believe firmly that there’s a reason for everything in math. It’s not just magic from a guy in a toga.”

Prestigious Award

This constant conversation and exploration of the meaning of life and the meaning of math have earned the 72-year-old director of UNLV’s Math Learning Center the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) this year.

The council is the world’s largest mathematics education organization, with 60,000 members and more than 230 affiliates throughout the United States and Canada.

Daniel Brahier, a former student of Speer in the 1980s who later went on to work with him at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, said Speer was known for being innovative and inspirational. Brahier was among a number of Speer’s colleagues and mathematics leaders from across the country who nominated him for the award.

“I was not disappointed when I took his class,” said Brahier, who is now the director of Science and Math Education in ACTION at the Bowling Green School of Teaching and Learning. “It was many years before I fully appreciated how far ahead of his time he was in the teaching methods that he promoted – hands-on, inquiry-based, student-centered – all of the teaching strategies that research backs today.”

Brahier and Speer served on the 1991 team of mathematics leaders that implemented the first set of mathematics learning standards in Ohio.


Pioneering Approach

“(Bill’s) forward-thinking ideas came to fruition in that document and paved the way for reforming teaching practices across the country,” Brahier said. “Meanwhile, Today’s Mathematics, a textbook Bill coauthored with Dr. Jim Heddens from Kent State University in Ohio, was the top-selling elementary mathematics methods teaching textbook on the market.”

All told, Speer has authored or co-authored eight textbooks, 36 scholarly books or chapters, 38 editorships and 40 research projects. He also has given 57 keynote addresses and has written 100 invited papers.

Since joining UNLV in 1995, Speer has become a constant in advocating for and implementing improved mathematics standards in Nevada. He served on the statewide review team for the 2010 common core state standards that have become the foundation for the state’s current Nevada academic content standards for mathematics.

Speer has served in various leadership roles at the university, including interim dean for the College of Education. He also helped launch the UNLV NCTM student group. His leadership also brought to Las Vegas NCTM annual meetings and regional conferences.

Speer’s latest project is re-defining remedial math for UNLV students. At the Math Learning Center, Speer and his colleagues use digital learning programs and other strategies to help students review or see for the first time key concepts they need to place into a higher-level mathematics course than they might otherwise be ready for.

“We don’t want to just go over what the student has already been over,” Speer said. “If they come to us because they are not ready for college credit math, traditionally – sadly – that problem was dealt with by looking backward, rather than taking a fresh look and approaching things in a new way.”

Kim Metcalf, dean of the College of Education, said work at the Math Learning Center represents the culmination of Speer’s research and vision for the future of mathematics education.

“I can’t imagine anyone who has made more of an impact on their field,” Metcalf said. “He is well respected and well liked at the state level and across the country. And there are tens of thousands of people who now teach a certain way, and hundreds of thousands of students who have learned or are learning math in a way that is the direct result of the work and research of Bill Speer.”


The Why?

Speer takes a questioning approach to teaching, with why being the first and constant question he poses to his students and encourages them to ask him.

“This becomes a collaborative process,” Speer said. “That’s a huge difference from what traditional programs do.”

Moving away from the traditional and accepted way of doing things has defined Speer’s career and life trajectory.

As he put it, life has been a series of points in a line that took him from the classroom in DeKalb, Illinois, to UNLV. “But it wasn’t a straight line,” he said.

Growing up in the small town where barbed wire was invented, the young Speer was expected to go to college and be a success. He tried accounting and was bored. He was not cut out for business, and was not interested in entrepreneurial pursuits. This led to his academic probation for several semesters and nearly being kicked out of school.

But he loved his math classes.

He credits his late wife, Marjorie, for motivating him to pursue his talents in math. “My wife was the one who gave me reason to get serious and turn it around,” Speer said.

Really Learning Math
Soon after graduating college, he was recruited to teach basic high school math. Then, he had another epiphany. Although his students were doing the problems correctly, they were not learning math.

For instance, he was teaching them how to solve for square roots using pencil and paper, going through a long series of complicated steps. They all completed the steps, but one student persistently asked, “Why are you doing what you’re doing?”

Over three days, Speer worked with the student to figure why taking that particular series of steps results in the answer to the square root of a number. Speer realized that no one ever told him either.

“Turns out to be the simplest thing to understand,” Speer said. “It’s not a math problem. It’s geometry! The rules we encounter in school mathematics are not the real mathematics. It’s the process we use to establish those rules that reflect the true nature of math. And it’s that ‘aha!’ moment you have with a student that you can count as success.”

“Color Does Not Equal Consciousness”: Educators of Color Learning to Enact a Sociopolitical Consciousness

Dr. Iesha Jackson (Teaching and Learning) co-authored an empirical study with colleague Dr. Michelle Knight-Manuel (Teacher’s College – Columbia University) that explores how secondary educators of color attempt to support their Black and Latino male students’ navigation of particular inequities related to college knowledge and access. The research, published in the Journal of Teacher Education, highlights culturally relevant professional development for inservice teachers of color.

This study is based on an initiative for increasing college and career readiness for Black and Latino male high school students in New York City. From data that include 58 total hours of participant observations from 24 educators of color, written documentation from culturally relevant education–professional development (CRE-PD) activities, and transcripts of six group interviews, we examine these educators’ work to further their own sociopolitical consciousness in relation to increasing Black and Latino male students’ college and career readiness. We explore how secondary educators of color utilize pedagogical tools and practices in attempting to support their Black and Latino male students’ navigation of particular inequities related to college knowledge and access. Our findings highlight educators’ experiential knowledge as a pedagogical tool, approaches to preparing students for postsecondary opportunities, and missed opportunities to enact a sociopolitical consciousness. Recommendations for inservice educator PD and future research are discussed.

Kids of color get kicked out of school at higher rates – here’s how to stop it

By Samuel Song, University of Nevada, Las Vegas via The Conversation U.S.

When two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks where they had been waiting for a business meeting on April 12, the incident called renewed attention to the bias that racial minorities face in American society.

A few days later, a similar incident unfolded at an LA Fitness in New Jersey.

While these two incidents involved adults at places of business, the reality is black children face similar treatment in America’s schools.

The latest evidence is in a recent federal report that shows boys, black students and students with disabilities get kicked out of school at higher rates than their peers.

Findings like this are disturbing, but they are hardly surprising. As a trainer of school psychologists, consultant and researcher, I have worked with schools on the matter of racial disparities in school discipline, along with other problems of justice.

I believe racial disparities in school discipline will persist until educators seriously examine the role their decisions play in the matter. They will also persist until schools begin to implement new strategies that have proven it’s not necessary to kick kids out of school to effectively deal with their behavior.

The source of disparities

Racial disparities in school discipline are nothing new. In 2014 – after years of “zero tolerance” policies proved problematic – the Obama administration issued a guidance to remind schools of their obligation to teach all children and not to suspend or expel them unfairly.

Yet, the new federal data show that for virtually every school in the country for the 2013-14 school year, racial disparities were present irrespective of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of school attended. The bottom line is that some sort of bias is at play.

In research on the subject, this bias is known as implicit bias. This is defined as automatic, unconscious associations and stereotypes about groups of people that affect our understanding, actions and decisions. This topic has been studied extensively and popularized by a collaborative research project housed at Harvard University.

How real is implicit bias? In a series of four experimental studies, the fourth study, using state-of-the-art eye-tracking methodology, demonstrated that – when asked to judge who was telling the truth – whites gazed more quickly at the “lie” response for blacks, which suggests a spontaneous mistrust of blacks. This is consistent with what other researchers have found. Interestingly, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson mentioned implicit bias as one of the issues potentially at play in the Starbucks incident.

One study on implicit bias in schools concluded that teachers and staff viewed black girls’ behavior differently. The same study found that black girls were three times more likely to receive office referrals for discipline compared to white girls for subjective discipline violations. A different study found that black students were disciplined for subjective interpretations of behaviors, such as “disobedience” and “disruptive behavior.”

An experimental study conducted at Yale found that preschool teachers gazed at black boys longer compared to other children when asked to look for challenging behavior on video clips.

This tendency to view black children with more suspicion harms the relationships between teachers and black students.

In issuing the new report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO, lists several areas to target racial disparities in school discipline. In my experience working with schools, I believe the GAO’s recommendations are correct, but will only work under certain conditions.

In search of alternatives

The first recommendation is to implement alternative forms of discipline that focus on proactive and preventative strategies for the whole school rather than reactive punishment. In my work with schools implementing such approaches, the biggest problem is the degree to which teachers and staff may not have buy-in on the strategies to implement them properly.

For example, some teachers and staff with one particular initiative became frustrated with certain challenging students and rarely gave praise or “behavior bucks,” which could be traded in for privileges and stickers. And when teachers did distribute the “behavior bucks,” they were sarcastic about it and often belittled students rather than being encouraging. In essence, teachers turned a positive strategy into a harmful one.

Due to the potential lack of buy-in from teachers, it is important to use strategies that enable a more collaborative approach to deciding the consequences.

This is the strength of the restorative justice approach. Restorative justice is built upon a foundation of empowering students to collaboratively have their voices heard, take responsibility for one’s actions, and make hurt relationships right again through community dialogue.

For example, restorative justice approaches will gather students and adults together in a circle to discuss the infraction by focusing on who was harmed and what the community can do to make the hurt relationship right again, which is often a plan of amends. These circle discussions with various adults and students allow for all parties to understand one another’s perspective and produce empathy for students, teachers and classmates. In my view, collaborative decision-making is the key to reducing biases.

Restorative justice has been shown to reduce racial disparities in discipline directly, which perhaps explains why other programs are integrating restorative justice strategies into their programs.

Second, there need to be new laws and policies to discourage punitive, exclusionary disciplinary practices in schools and to encourage alternative approaches to school discipline.

For example, California prohibits the use of suspensions and expulsions for children in grades K-3 for willful defiance. Other states and school districts, such as Illinois and Seattle, have done so as well.

The ConversationFinally, it would be helpful if America’s schools had more school psychologists on hand. Unfortunately, the nation’s schools suffer from a shortage of school psychologists at a time when they are needed most to help address complex issues of racial disparities in school discipline.

Samuel Song, Associate Professor of School Psychology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Nuestros Maestros (Our Teachers) Spotlight: Dr. Miguel Gonzales

Read the recent spotlight on College of Education Assistant Professor Miguel Gonzales by Univision Noticias. Their partnership project with Pearson, Nuestros Maestros (Our Teachers), seeks to spotlight Latino teachers who are making a difference in our rapidly diversifying communities.

Univision notes, “When students have a teacher who looks like them, their absenteeism goes down, they concentrate more, their grades improve and their graduation rates go up. But although a quarter of the country’s students are Hispanic, only 7 percent of teachers are Hispanic. These teachers make a big difference.”

Read the original article below or on the Univision Noticias website. An English translation is available here.

Para este maestro los docentes hispanos tienen dos almas, una en el mundo estadounidense y otra en el latino

Para Miguel Gonzáles, exitoso maestro de educación y enseñanza en Las Vegas, el sistema educativo está fallando a los estudiantes. Según su filosofía de enseñanza, si un profesor no se interesa verdaderamente por sus estudiantes, no puede enseñarles ni inspirarles. Él lo sabe bien: tanto su hermana como su padre, quien fue su inspiración, fueron profesores como él.

Por Juliana Jiménez • Primero publicado en Univision Noticias

El deber del maestro es algo grande y noble, porque en realidad es el maestro que tiene ambos el presente y el futuro en sus manos al mismo tiempo. | David Maris

Miguel Gonzáles viene de una familia de maestros. Hoy es un exitoso profesor de liderazgo, psicología educacional y estudios superiores en la Universidad de Nevada, Las Vegas, pero el camino para llegar hasta allí fue largo. Y comienza con su papá.

-Cuéntanos la historia de tu padre. ¿Él influyó en tu decisión de ser maestro?

Mi padre siempre fue un gran ejemplo e influencia en mi vida. Él nació en Texas, de padres inmigrantes de México, de San Luis Potosí y Monterrey. Creció en un ambiente pobre, sin mucho apoyo y recursos de sus padres, prácticamente solo. Como muchos hispanos en EEUU, al graduarse de la secundaria, no se atrevió a asistir a la universidad.

Por años, se dedicó a trabajar en empleos de salario mínimo y muchas veces tenía más de dos trabajos para sostener a nuestra familia de cuatro hijos. Cuando yo tenía 11 años, mi padre tuvo, digamos, una epifanía, y se dio cuenta de que para progresar y ayudar a nuestra familia tenía que volver a estudiar. Entonces en ese momento, se dio cuenta también que quería ser maestro.

A mi padre le encantó la idea de ser maestro porque él se consideraba a sí mismo un “adolescente jubilado” y le gustaba estar con jóvenes. Quería ayudar y servir a la juventud, especialmente la juventud hispana, con las herramientas para navegar exitosamente en esta sociedad moderna. Entonces, cuando yo tenía 17 años y estaba a punto de graduarme de la secundaria, mi papá se graduó de la universidad, en 1999. Al año siguiente, había logrado su sueño de ser maestro.

El ver el sacrificio, ejemplo, dedicación y sobre todo el gozo que sentía mi papá por ser maestro me inspiró a seguir sus mismos pasos. Yo también quería tener el mismo gozo e influencia en los jóvenes y en la comunidad hispana como lo tenía él.

– Cuéntanos del momento en que decidiste ser maestro y cómo se materializó esa idea

Me hice maestro de secundaria en 2008. Tuve la dicha de ser maestro de la misma secundaria donde me gradué en 1999 (Santa Maria High School). Fue una experiencia inolvidable. Me sentí realmente como un adolescente de nuevo cuando empecé mi carrera como maestro en aquella escuela. Allí tienen y tenían una población estudiantil predominantemente hispana con pocos maestros hispanos. Tuve el privilegio de representar a la comunidad hispana no solamente como profesor, sino también como un alumno hispano de esa escuela.

El maestro latino tiene dos almas, uno en el mundo estadounidense y otro en lo latino. | David Maris

Durante la mayor parte de mi vida, asistí a escuelas de nivel socioeconómico bajo. No tuve muchas experiencias buenas en cuanto a mi propio aprendizaje. Vi y pasé por cosas que jamás deberían pasar en una escuela. Y lamentablemente, las investigaciones nos enseñan que los alumnos de escuelas de niveles socioeconómicos bajos tienen menos probabilidad de graduarse de la secundaria, obtener empleo bueno y asistir a la universidad.

No fue hasta que empecé a asistir a la facultad que me di cuenta que me habían robado mi educación; en otras palabras, me robaron oportunidades de aprender, progresar y de desarrollar mis habilidades e intereses. Fue en ese momento que sentí la urgencia de ser maestro y quería que ningún alumno se sintiera engañado o robado de una buena educación.

-¿Cómo fue el camino hasta convertirte en maestro? ¿Fuiste por la ruta tradicional?

Como mencioné, fue en la universidad que me di cuenta de que me engañaron en mi educación y no quería que ningún estudiante pasara por la misma experiencia. Allí me dediqué a ser maestro. Empecé en el college comunitario local y luego me transferí a la Universidad de California en Santa Barbara.

Cuando me gradué, me tomé otro año más en la Universidad de Chapman para sacar mi título de maestro y a la vez una maestría en pedagogía. A medida que yo progresaba en mi carrera de maestro, sentía un gran anhelo de obtener un doctorado. Empecé a aplicar a varias universidades y para mi sorpresa, fui aceptado para estudiar en la Universidad de Harvard. Era un sueño mío estudiar en Harvard.

Pero este sueño fue de corta duración. Después de matricularme en Harvard tuve que dejar la escuela porque no pude obtener las finanzas necesarias para pagar la matrícula. Gracias a Dios, Él tenía otros planes para mí. Poco tiempo después de dejar a Harvard, fui aceptado para el programa doctoral de la Universidad del Sur de California (USC). Durante mi tiempo en USC, acepté la posición de subdirector de una escuela secundaria en Santa Barbara. Un año después acepté otra posición para ser director ejecutivo de una escuela charter y me gradué del programa doctoral de USC.

Ahora soy profesor de liderazgo y políticas de educación en la Universidad de Nevada en Las Vegas. Es mi meta y esperanza ayudar a cambiar nuestro sistema educativo para el bienestar de nuestro futuro y también ayudar a los jóvenes hispanos a ser exitosos en nuestra sociedad.

Según tu experiencia, ¿cuál ha sido el aspecto más gratificante de enseñar?
Al establecer una relación con los estudiantes, los maestros tienen la oportunidad de ayudarles a cambiar su pensamiento, hábitos e incluso carácter. | David Maris

Uno de los aspectos más gratificantes son las relaciones que se establecen con los alumnos. Al establecer una relación con los estudiantes, los maestros tienen la oportunidad de ayudarles a cambiar su pensamiento, hábitos e incluso carácter. Siempre me asombraba cada vez que recibía cartas de mis alumnos que me agradecían por el impacto que tuve en sus vidas. Para mí, esas cartas valían más que el oro.

¿Tienes una anécdota de un estudiante con el que hayas conectado de manera especial?

Recuerdo un año, era el primer día de clases, le pedí a un alumno que leyera algo en voz alta. Se negó a leer y empezó a ser muy grosero conmigo y sus compañeros de clase. Le pedí que saliera del aula por un tiempo porque empezó a salirse de control.

Pensé que este adolescente iba a ser una pesadilla para mí y que él iba a ser muy problemático para la clase entera. Salí de mi aula y comencé a hablar con él y descubrí que él hizo una escena a propósito porque no sabía leer. No recuerdo exactamente lo que le dije ese día, pero le prometí que si entraba a mi aula durante la hora del almuerzo le enseñaría a leer. Él se animó y empezó a venir a mi aula durante la hora del almuerzo, y así comenzamos a establecer una relación positiva. Su lectura mejoró y también su comportamiento.

Al final del año, me escribió una carta dándome las gracias y me hizo un pisapapeles en forma de pato en su clase de carpintería, el cual todavía conservo.

¿Por qué crees que es importante tener maestros latinos, como tú, en las aulas?

El maestro latino tiene dos almas, uno en el mundo estadounidense y otro en lo latino. Con esta ventaja, el maestro latino puede llegar a ser un puente entre las escuelas y la comunidad latina.

Quería ayudar a la comunidad latina con las herramientas para navegar exitosamente en esta sociedad moderna. | David Maris

Con el aumento de alumnos latinos en las escuelas públicas, he observado que muchos colegios, sin ninguna mala intención, no entienden la cultura hispana y mucho menos la cultura inmigrante. Además, hay muchos maestros hoy en día que no entienden la complejidad que es ser latino en EEUU. Tampoco entienden lo complejo que es para los padres hispanos que están tratando criar a un niño americano.

Sin embargo, la mayoría de los maestros hispanos sí entienden esta complejidad y pueden ser una clave principal para ayudar a la comunidad latina a seguir adelante. Pueden ayudar a convertir las escuelas en espejos, no ventanas, de la comunidad latina. En efecto, los alumnos latinos deben ver su identidad reflejada en su comunidad escolar (espejos), para saber que la gente “como yo” son ciudadanos plenos en la escuela.

Igualmente importante es que los alumnos latinos sean desafiados a mirar fuera de sí mismos (ventanas) para entender, respetar y apreciar las culturas e identidades de los demás.

-¿Qué has aprendido siendo maestro? ¿Qué has aprendido de tus alumnos?

Algo que he aprendido como maestro es que el maestro tiene mucho poder. El deber del maestro es algo grande y noble, porque en realidad es el maestro que tiene ambos el presente y el futuro en sus manos al mismo tiempo.

A la vez, he reconocido que el sistema educativo que tenemos hoy en día no proveerá a los jóvenes los recursos, experiencias y habilidades que necesitarán para competir y trabajar en el siglo 21. Nuestro sistema educativo es esencialmente un modelo industrial de educación, un modelo de fabricación, digamos, que se basa en la linealidad y la conformidad.

Yo creo que tenemos que cambiar el sistema educativo a un modelo que se base más en los principios de la agricultura. Tenemos que reconocer que el florecimiento humano no es un proceso mecánico; es un proceso orgánico. En realidad, no se puede predecir el resultado del desarrollo humano. Todo lo que puedes hacer, como un granjero, es crear las condiciones bajo las cuales empezarán a florecer. Y son los maestros y los líderes de las escuelas que tienen este gran privilegio y deber crear las condiciones bajo las cuales los alumnos empezarán a florecer.

He aprendido muchas cosas de mis alumnos. He llegado a la conclusión que los alumnos realmente quieren un maestro que demuestre interés sincero por su bienestar. Sin mostrar que le importa realmente su bienestar, el maestro no puede llegar a enseñar ni a inspirar al alumno.

Para aprender más sobre la importante labor de los profesores latinos en nuestras comunidades, visita nuestro proyecto en conjunto con Pearson, Nuestros Maestros.